In Chasing Freedom, Nova Scotia poet Gloria Ann Wesley presents a tale of Loyalist slaves who came to Canada during the American Civil War. The slaves were given their freedom by the British, but that freedom turned out to be tenuous and, ultimately, provisional.
Set in Birchtown, N.S., the fist black settlement in Canada, this is the story of Sarah, her father, and her grandmother, Lydia, and their lives in a new and inhospitable land. The plot is filled with suspenseful situations: will Sarah’s father, Fortune, find his way home? After being wrongfully accused of murder, will he find justice? Will Lydia, who was a “breeding slave,” find the courage to claim her grown children? Wesley holds a complicated plot together with deft storytelling and a distinctive voice.
Appalling things happen, but the book’s tone has a dignity and emotional restraint that matches the characters’ experiences. As Sarah says of her grandmother, “She had trained herself to hold emotions back because crying was a sign of weakness. A weak slave made good sport for an overseer.”
The innovative novel is a true ensemble piece. We get inside the heads of major and minor characters, including a despicable slave hunter known as Boll Weevil, sometimes just for a line or two, which creates a true community portrait. The writing is spare and earthy, and Wesley lets carefully chosen details speak for themselves. When Sarah receives her Certificate of Freedom, it is “the first piece of writing she had ever held.” Not read, not owned - held.
Chasing Freedom is a big story, fashioned from small, powerful moments, and a fine contribution to the literature of arrivals and encounters.
- reviewed by Sarah Ellis, a Vancouver writer and former librarian.